Stonewall Uprising: A Portrait of Radical Queers
by Andy Hartman, thirdcoastdigest.com
April 22nd 2011
See Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZUZKtko4R0
History is a form of validation; how we assess the past determines how we perceive ourselves in the present. Without a history we are lost and wandering, perpetually grasping at events or occurrences for meaning and identity. This concept rings especially true when considering the history of queer culture in America. Its numerous gaps and fractured nature make it difficult to apprehend — and shows exactly why its reclamation is so important.
It is through this lens that the documentary Stonewall Uprising tells the story of the celebrated riots which sparked the beginning of the gay rights movement in New York City’s Greenwich Village in June 1969. The film was screened last week at UWM as part of the LGBT Film and Video series and was followed by a panel discussion in preparation for its April 25 premiere on PBS’s American Experience.
The film tries to situate the riots within an historical context, but Stonewall strangely resists being placed inside the larger narrative of American civil rights. Not quite belonging to any single movement, Stonewall’s catalysts and significance are varied and difficult to isolate. Accordingly, the film simply allows those who were there to speak for themselves. In presenting an oral history of the uprising, the film truly shines — first-hand accounts of drag queens battering down doors with a parking meter or setting police cars ablaze in response to unrelenting raids on gay bars are stand-out moments.
Stonewall Uprising gives the audience an easy-to-understand background of the America which made this violence possible. It passionately details the inextricable ties of homosexuality with the medical institution, outlining the various “cures” for the “homosexual problem,” including a notorious compound in Atascadero, CA which one of the subjects refers to as “Dachau for queers.” It was here that queers in the 50’s and 60’s were sterilized, experimented upon and lobotomized.
Unsettling, outlandish clips from vintage news segments warning the public about the threat of homosexuality are peppered throughout the film, showing how heavily the country was being policed for “unnatural sex acts.” One was ridiculously titled “Boys Beware.” To add further context, the film opens by telling the audience that in 1969, homosexuality was illegal in every state except Illinois.
With no laws for protection, and represented only by a very cautious early gay rights movement, queers saw themselves aligned more with the in-your-face, abrasive tactics used by the civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements. These different avenues of rebellion allowed pre-Stonewall queers to vent their anger and frustration, and it is the convergence of these avenues that Stonewall Uprising sees as the true impetus for the riots.
Many in the audience at last week’s screening were teenaged Milwaukeeans in the late 60s, and could personally attest to its impact during the panel discussion. News of Stonewall was reported here, but only as a footnote – something of minor importance that people didn’t quite understand. Many professed to first hearing about the uprising via Time Magazine’s October 31, 1969 issue The Homosexual in America. One audience member remarked, ”Before that, people didn’t even know how to talk about [gayness].”
Milwaukeeans’ tentative approach to notions of sexual difference is crystallized in the story told by one audience member, who recalled a very early proto-Pride march in 1971, where fifty members of Gay People’s Union (a gay rights organization founded in Milwaukee during the 1970’s) marched to the courthouse. However, once they realized cameras were waiting for them, the entire group turned around for fear of being shown on the news.
These individual experiences, provided by both the audience and the panel, gave a personal touch to the task of understanding Stonewall. Jan Warren, panel member and co-chair of Connexus, a program which fosters African-American LGBT leadership, recalls her time spent on Milwaukee’s South Side. Her friends were “highly scrutinized in [gay] men’s bars.” Because of her skin color and her sex, Warren felt she needed to “achieve the right to be gay.”
But just as Stonewall changed the conversation about homosexuality in America, it also changed the landscape in Milwaukee. Warren said the uprisings highlighted their “similarities in the fight to be accepted as human beings.”
Bryce Smith, a transgender historian, placed emphasis on the participation of trans people in Stonewall, saying that it was a “brief moment in time that showed gay could encompass everyone simultaneously.”
Cheryl Kader, a senior Women’s and LGBT Studies lecturer at UWM rounded out the panel with an academic tilt, calling attention to the fact that Stonewall “matters not as history or nostalgia, but as discourse – as a way to understand the meanings attached to sex and gender.” Stonewall “helped open a vision that encompasses multiple sexuality and gender organizations.” It is largely due to Stonewall that we are able to critique and investigate what queerness can mean.
Whichever way one understands the uprising, its legacy today is apparent. Pride fests are organized every year around the time of Stonewall, and in 2009, New York City started a tourism campaign inviting visitors to “join the rainbow pilgrimage” for its 40th anniversary.
Through Stonewall, queers “discovered [a] power we didn’t even know we had.” This power is evident in the closing shot of one subject’s recollection of New York City’s first pride march. With tears in his eyes, he describes how “we were ourselves for the first time.”
That sense of brazen, unified and public validation changed the lives of countless Americans, and altered the course of history as we know it.
Stonewall Uprising premieres on PBS as part of the American Experience series on Monday, April 25. For more information, click here.
Original Page: http://thirdcoastdigest.com/2011/04/stonewall-uprising-a-portrait-of-radical-queers/
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